Full disclosure: The new movie Norman, directed by Joseph Cedar, was edited by the husband of a close friend and former debate partner from my college days; was produced by another college acquaintance; was filmed in part at the Upper West Side synagogue that my wife’s sister used to attend; was filmed in at least one other part near the Upper West Side block where my family lived when I was born; is about the Jews, a wandering tribe of which I am a member; involves Israel, a country that would give me citizenship tomorrow; and takes for its lead character one Norman Oppenheimer, whose last name I share but to whom I am not related. As if not to let me forget the extent to which I am personally implicated in every scene in this movie, the Sony Pictures web version that I was allowed to watch on my laptop super-imposed MARK OPPENHEIMER in the upper left corner of the screen throughout, such that it was frequently hovering over the main character’s head: Norman, c’est toi, the words were saying to me.
But I should say, before I go on to praise this movie as one of the best I have ever seen, that my level of familiarity with the film, of implication in it, more likely predisposed me to dislike it, as I was more likely to pick up on the tiny slips, the little inaccuracies, in a movie that seemed to be, in so many ways, about my world. Not that I am a businessman/consultant/fixer in the mold of Norman Oppenheimer, nor a parvenu (I hope), nor somebody infatuated with power (I’m pretty sure). But a movie that within the first 10 minutes has a salesman at a hoity-toity store mispronounce the protagonist’s name as “Oh-ppenheimer”—the singular cross born by our ilk, the world over—is one about which I am exquisitely poised to notice all that the director, writer, and actors get wrong.
They get nothing wrong. Richard Gere’s accent, old New York Jewish faded with the decades and lunches cadged at the Four Seasons; the boxy, ill-fitting suits of Israeli politicians thumping their views in the Knesset; the tortured, strained voice of a rabbi (Steve Buscemi!) trying to balance his spiritual duties with his responsibilities as CEO of a struggling congregation—it’s all on key. What’s more, the scene-stealing little touches never overwhelm the plot, which is like pretty good Mamet in con-game mode, but less intricate, in a pleasurable way, requiring less concentration, at least for a tired viewer late at night.
But the movie is so much more—not that the critics have noticed. It’s rare to see sharp thinkers like The New Yorker’s Richard Brody and NPR’s Bob Mondello get a movie so wrong. Mondello gave the movie shallow, warm-bath praise, at least; in his, capsule review (all you need to know), Brody seemed to miss the point entirely, comparing the movie to Woody Allen, as if any middle-aged Jewish male protagonist is Alvy Singer. A.O. Scott seemed to get the point, insofar as space in the Times would allow. Nobody else as far as I can tell had a clue.
Which raised, for me, the troubling possibility that the movie’s true grandeur can be grokked only by insiders—maybe not as insider-y as a fellow Oppenheimer like me, but still. Is Norman doomed to the fate of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a super-sophisticated fantasia on Jewish identity, Zionism, and policework that, to most of Chabon’s fans, reads as simply confusing?
Norman is, as Scott notes in the Times, about intra-Jewish conflict. It’s the simple tale of Norman, a wannabe fixer of unfixed residence who wanders the streets of Manhattan trying to connect people; he hopes to get a little piece of whatever action flames up from the friction, but he’s not really in it for the money, more for the sense of purpose, even duty—he really just wants to help. For the rest of the plot, if I only said that he buys a pair of shoes for a rising Israeli politician, on detail in New York, then years later needs a rabbi to perform a marriage for his nephew, who as a Kohen is forbidden to marry a Korean convert—well, I need not say more, do I?
On that structure, in under two hours, the movie stretches out the polygonal tensions between the German-Israeli yekkes, with their very un-Middle Eastern fetish for law and order; other Israelis; the New York Jewish philanthropic establishment; synagogue boards; clergy; the Israeli peace movement; AIPAC (here it’s “AIPAL,” sly homophone for “Eh, pal?); and the poor, unconnected Jewish Everyman, trying to figure out where he fits into the world. That man is Norman, who wants to help and be helped—who, in short, wants to connect, to be part of a warm Jewish family, extended if not nuclear.
In Norman’s last name, we hear resonances (okay, more) of the 18th-century German Jewish court banker Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who was railroaded for financial crimes and hanged by the same Gentile regime that, for a time, had allowed him to prosper. Given a chance to convert just before his death, he refused, a hopeful Jew to the last. Norman, too, meets an unfortunate end, but never waivers in his faith, however constructed—in his case, to an Israeli politician who reluctantly, but surely, is about to heave him under a bulldozer.
What’s missing in all the reviews I have read is how, in the vision of Cedar, the film’s Israeli filmmaker, it’s alas true that the Israelis are, in fact, the Germans, willing to perpetrate violence toward: less powerful Jews, liberals, Palestinians, and truth-tellers. In fact, Norman is ruthlessly skeptical of Zionism; it’s an investigation of how state power can divide a community against itself, both externally, by dividing people into camps, and internally, in the sense of cleaving people along their better and worse natures, their yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov. It’s a subtle point, until you see it, and then all the details pop into relief, like how Norman is mortally threatened by a peanut allergy—an affliction to which Israelis are relatively immune, probably due to their youth’s love of peanut-based Bamba, which is like the national snack. To be done in by peanuts is basically to be done in by the IDF, or the Mossad.
Am I reading too much into what The New Yorker called an “anecdotal and superficial” movie? I don’t think so. I suspect that future viewings will pull me deeper into the depths of its despair, despair over our people, how we treat each other, and how we live together, both in the diaspora and the land that we call our own. Near the very end of the credits, the film thanks the Knesset for allowing filming within its chambers, “the beating heart of Israeli democracy.” The line is both sincere and ironic, and it’s heartbreaking too, like this epically great movie.
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